An interview with legendary game designer John Newcomer
Can you give us a brief look into what inspired you when you were young? Did family or friends influence your decision to get into games or was this something you became interested in on your own?
I originally wanted to be a toy and game inventor working for a think tank. During the 60’s through 80’s most major toy and game ideas came from think tanks, and the largest in the world was Marvin Glass in Chicago which was not so far away from where I grew up in Indiana.
I took apart every toy I could get my hands on to see how it worked. I went to toy stores regularly and memorized every toy made shown in catalog wish books like Montgomery Wards and Sears.
On the game front, Bobby Fischer heavily inspired me and I was a seriously competitive chess junkie. This gave me a very solid ability to understand strategy, plotting attacks and defenses.
I also played Monopoly and poker competitively with my best friend. Those were different types of strategy that required an understanding of probability. Another game I played seriously was Backgammon, and that game is a perfect blend of probability and skill.
What I found was that when I was buying games from the toy stores, I could quickly master how to win them and my friend and I would often change the rules to add more challenge.
Knowing these basics gave me an edge when I shifted to video games. It helped in tweaking AI, designing levels and overall balance.
It also allowed me to be well rounded and not just tied to one genre. I was at home with any genre.
Do you think your education in product and industrial design has helped when designing games or maybe given you a different perspective when approaching unique challenges?
Definitely. I see everything in terms of design…movies, music, games, and even the interaction of friends when they hangout. I observe and tear down the elements of what makes these things work or not.
In fact, I don’t identify myself as a Game Designer and would stress that other designers consider a more rounded approach and look at themselves as Entertainment Designers.
Learning basic product design (especially toys) gave me the tools to consider anything that was entertaining and be comfortable in any genre. I look to make any game fun and get into the head of the target customer and try to see through their eyes.
To make a game you have to realize that you’re competing for a customer’s free time doing anything entertaining. I have to make the game more enticing than watching a movie or listening to music or watching TV.
A designer should know what bombards the customer and think how they can use these things in a game to attract.
When you learn product design, you think of more things than just the main function. You think about the look and feel. I also studied a lot of psychology and that helps you to see things from someone else’s perspective and consider how to attract people and service their emotions.
I remember a few professors that genuinely helped me improve and was wondering if you have any mentors or people from your past that helped inspire you and how?
My real life mentor was Gordon Barlow. He was the Senior Partner at Marvin Glass and he broke off and started his own company in Skokie, IL.
He’s best known for being the creator of Mouse Trap. Gordon took me under his wing and taught me more about toys and games in a few months than I had learned in school.
He taught me that toys and games were a business. You can’t get stuck thinking of an idea; you have to develop a method to keep moving and never get stuck.
And…he taught me that you have to balance two goals. The first is to make a product that’s fun for the target audience, and the second being to make it so the company makes money.
So many young designers get caught in the trap of just making something fun. That may work if you are independently wealthy or a small indie group.
To make a big hit you have to consider how to tap into a larger demographic. Hit the emotions of people, consider your budget, consider potential for line extensions and so much more.
My fantasy mentors were people I never worked with but their creativity and ability to entertain and tap into the heart of what triggers people are first and foremost George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were life changing moments for me.
I could see how movies were games if you tear the script and effects and other elements down. They showed where games would be headed as technology improved.
Next is Tomohiro Nishikado, who created Space Invaders. That game changed my life as I could see video games were the future and I altered my career plans to shift from toys to video games.
I also have to mention my favorite illustrators who I still refer to when I need a dose of creativity: Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis (MAD magazine illustrator), and James Bama, who illustrated the box art for a line of Aurora monster models.
Are there any classic or current games/films that changed your creative vision or that stand out to you as must play/watch and why? Have you been impressed or surprised by any recently?
I watch movies constantly for inspiration. They’re games to me and designers can learn a lot about story, character development, pacing, and effects from them.
If you want to know how to design a game that has an ensemble cast of characters, study how Joss Whedon handled the writing and balancing of the characters in The Avengers.
If you’re doing children’s games, you need to watch what Pixar is doing.
And where did gems like Despicable Me come from? These just scratch the surface.
For games, I still rank the arcade classic, Robotron, as the best playing game. It used great techniques to get your adrenaline up fast and you instinctively want to try again. You’re faced with what seems like an impossible setup and yet, you get out of it and get a tremendous rush.
The key was I saw the entire problem in front of me at one time. Current games use perspectives where you’re never confronted with the enormity of the task at one time so the problem keeps coming at you and you don’t have a great sense of when it’ll end.
Narrowing down the huge library of games would take a lot of time to sort out.
I’d start with the importance of World of Warcraft as it took a complicated genre and made it accessible to a wider audience.
Doom was the birth of the first person shooter and all others stand on its shoulders.
Minecraft is important because it shows that you can do fun without having state-of-the-art graphics and tech. Minecraft also understands the core of fun and knows that tech and effects are icing. If your core isn’t fun, you can’t hide it forever with the frosting.
I salute Angry Birds because they reworked a common flash game mechanic that we all stared at for years and knew how to re-skin it and balance the difficulty to make it a mega hit.
I salute Candy Crush for similar reasons. Any of us in the industry could have and should have been able to make that game. No one else did because King got all the little things right. They understood the value of adding friends, understood that it was better to make levels very hard.
Since you were the one that hired me for my first job in games, I still remember the squid cartoon that was a requirement for the interview and have to ask; is it true that you cooked a rubber chicken in a crock-pot at your interview with Williams Electronics?
Actually Ken Fedesna, who hired me, remembers it differently. My version for the record is that at my interview I gave him my resume stuffed down the throat of a rubber chicken.
After I was hired, Ken got sick and I brought him the crock-pot of rubber chicken soup. The point of the interview risk I took was I wanted to see if the company I would be working for had a sense of humor and appreciated a little creativity and guts.
Since you did get the job at Williams, and almost immediately created Joust, can you briefly explain the differences in production from then and now?
During the arcade game boom from 1978 – 1984, the teams were smaller and tools were a struggle. I remember working out character art and level designs using graph paper. We had a palette of 264 colors and could only use 15 + 1 for transparent.
The different skill sets were there except for Producers. The Lead Designer also served as what is now the Producer.
You didn’t have huge teams because there was not much memory to do much. Modern games require bigger teams as there is much better tech, more demand for features and depth of play and more memory available.
With big teams, you require more organization and cooperation with the business side of the project. The Producer became a necessity.
With more resources, you need tighter control of keeping everyone engaged with pieces and parts coming together in harmony to feed the development pipeline. Agile is currently the best way to manage game development and be able to make a game that can be seen in stages by all stakeholders so the project can be cut or iterated.
It costs a lot to make a game and you need to use solid business practices to manage it. Tools have shifted so they’re not done in-house. Let the specialists make Photoshop, Excel, 3ds Max, Visio, Maya and Unity.
Do you have any goals or things that you look for when hiring designers these days?
Hiring designers isn’t much different from any stage of my career. I want to see a twinkle in the candidate’s eye that they’re in this business because they want to be.
There’s a joy and passion to create games and entertainment. I want to know if the person has creative ability and how universal it is. They need to be able to dissect a game and tell me why it’s fun or successful.
What makes it tick?
I like seeing the person has a range of interest. A company may want to shift genre, so I want the designers to be able to shift as well because they love design as a whole and not just first person shooter design or fight game design.
Knowledge of tools is important, as ideas must be expressed to all members of the team. The ability to implement a variety of tasks is useful to everyone.
Something else I look for is communication ability. Teams are bigger with a wide range of specialties involved, so the best designers can express their ideas to anyone on the team. They also know how to work on a team and be respectful of others while making sure their ideas get in.
More experienced designers need to convey that they know what design pillars are and that they’ll make sure they’re not negotiated away when the schedule gets dicey. A designer must keep the vision of the game throughout development and make sure this vision is still in the game when it’s launched.
Joust was a huge game when it was released in 1982 and remains a cultural favorite. When fans like Lonnie McDonald continue to set records it must validate some of the decisions you made when creating the game. I know you’ve had other successes during your career and was wondering if you can shed some light on the process of designing such popular icons?
It does validate and I’m still surprised that the old arcade classics still get notoriety. I think it had a lot to do with the purity of the design. Either players connected with the idea or not, there wasn’t enough memory to hide behind a lot of varied levels and sizzling effects. The basic core mechanic had to be addictive.
The lesson learned is what’s popular today in design…get the core loop right. The basic gameplay has to be so entertaining and addictive that a player will have a compulsion to repeat the pattern over and over.
And, if the controls aren’t right, there’s nothing you can do to save the game. True then and true now.
A word about Lonnie and other record holders. At no time did anyone in the arcade business expect players could get so good that we would be seeing scores of a million plus.
Joust only planned for 9,999,999 and Lonnie easily wraps that. We didn’t put enough zeros on the scores and champion players wrap the score digits.
With many games, weird things happen as it wasn’t accounted for. I love these players who got so good. That dedication to learning to be that good is incredibly flattering. It’s also a great reminder to never underestimate the skills a human can achieve.
Most of your recent experience appears to be in mobile games; did you have any difficulty transitioning from arcade/coin-op to the mobile platform and free-to-play or was it more of an evolutionary step?
For me it was an evolutionary step to go from arcade to casual games/mobile. You had to get the basics right and at the start of mobile the struggle was to deal with so few colors and poor hardware. Arcade guys started there. Console guys had a tougher time as many never had to learn to do without.
Free to Play (F2P) is a tough transition for everyone. Easier for an arcade past because we had to learn to get 25 cents out of a player’s pocket every 2:30. For a quarter, a player could decide whether or not to ever play your game again.
A console background is a tougher transition because many are used to just designing to be good enough to get the $60 sale and then they don’t have to worry much anymore after the purchase was made. I know that I spent a lot of money $35 and $60 at a time where I felt screwed because the game got boring or didn’t have enough content.
MMO designers have an easier transition as they learned about the need to constantly service the customer and build a community. Where console wasn’t fair to the player, F2P turned the scale the other way.
It isn’t fair to the developers and publishers. For 0 cents, a person can play your game for free forever and 98% of players do that for the entire time they play their favorite game. The industry had it coming and designers need to adapt.
You need to make a game fun and engaging for the player first and foremost. If you want the player to stay, you need to listen to what they want, service them and provide a steady stream of content that downloads smoothly.
To make money, the designer needs to increase their skills to being a good psychologist and a good salesman. You have to study data and find where players are leaving the game and fix it. Then you need to convert the player to a paid player.
You have to show value.
You need to understand what is compelling enough about the game to make the player want to pay to play it. You have to know human behavior and sales techniques to entice someone to spend more. We’re not just tearing down games to learn what makes them tick, we are tearing down human behavior and learn what makes players pay for something they can do for free.
In the past, we used to worry about appealing to the widest audience possible. Do you see any popular trends driving the content of mobile games today?
Games have to continue to evolve over their lifetime with a series of updates. In general, the games keep giving the player more things to do. New play modes get added, daily quests. More games have been adding a PvP (player versus player) component.
The game starts out as a single player experience and then it evolves into competing against other players. Then you see more community features added like chat, special events. The whole game feels like a party.
Is there a favorite project or game title you’ve worked on recently and what made it fun for you personally?
I’ve liked working on most titles in my career. They each present different challenges and it’s fun to change genre and learn how to appeal to players that play that type of game.
As a manager, I touch a lot of projects concurrently so it’s hard to choose favorites. I like working on Reliance’s Real Steel franchise games because it’s fun to transform the world of the movie IP into a game that deals with fighting robots.
It’s a challenge to find our audience and place amongst some of the biggest names in the fighting genre. There’s a lot of potential to have robots do things that traditional human fighting characters can’t.
Are there any hurdles that make developing mobile games especially challenging?
There’re many hurdles starting with getting players to find your game and try it out. If you have a lot of money, a publisher will pay for UA (user acquisition). Otherwise, a good means is organic download where you make sure your game name uses keywords that users might search for on their own.
Once you start getting some players you need to retain them. You generally check one, three, seven, 15 and 30-day retention to see if the users are dropping out of the game early for what could be a variety of reasons. This is why F2P games use a lot of analytics that are triggered throughout the game code so designers and product managers can figure how the game is being received.
Then you have to convert enough players into paid players to bring in enough revenue to cover the development and to start making a profit. This is why your game has to be setup like a store and you use many techniques that a retail store would use to attract customers and get them to buy what you are selling.
Mobile F2P games technically keep on going as long as you attract customers. You have to get new customers and retail customers by listening to what the customer wants and make updates with new content every one to two months.
Is there anything you can tell us about the games in production at Reliance or anything being released in the near future?
Real Steel was App of the Week at Apple last year. These titles are in live operations where we’re continuing to add some exciting new features. In the upcoming months, we’re working on some action brawlers to gain a leadership position in that space; plus expand into new genre like Match-3 and Builder games.
Reliance has a very impressive game roster, can you share a rough percentage of how much work is completed in house versus outsourced?
Co-development is a big part of our strategy to expand into new genres. Our in-house studio builds on our strength in action and action brawlers where we have gained a lot of experience over the years.
The percentage of internal versus external would be very rough as it depends on the scope of the projects on the current roadmap and factoring in live operations to maintain existing titles. Let’s say 40-60.
Is there anything you would like to promote about the company?
Thank you very much for your time!